When 47-year-old Jen Stewart’s trainer first asked her to do a pushup, her immediate reaction was to laugh at the joke. Then she realized he wasn’t kidding.
“I thought about how much trouble I would have getting back up,” she says, recalling how embarrassed she would feel. “But I’ve been on a path of thinking about what I can do, instead of what I can’t.”
That path started nearly a decade ago, after Stewart went through a series of traumatic events — a divorce, her father passing away, unemployment and then her mother’s passing. She’d struggled with weight all her life, and knew yo-yo dieting well, but the compounding stress of all that emotional upheaval made it easy for her to fall back into poor food habits and a sedentary lifestyle.
In October 2013, her aunt treated her to a massage and Stewart remembers stepping onto the scale in the changing room, just out of curiosity. When it read “422,” she was astounded. She hadn’t weighed herself in years and had no idea she’d reached that point.
“I just about died seeing that number,” she says. “That was a big wake-up call for me. I knew I needed to change everything.”
With a limited budget, Stewart turned to a program in her home state of Alabama, which offered free exercise classes. She began researching other free or low-cost classes and attended as many as she could. Although it hurt to walk, she found it easier to move in classes like Zumba, and the instructor was incredibly encouraging.
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After a year of maintaining her commitment to exercise, she’d lost about 40 pounds and wanted to keep her progress going. She signed up for a 5K geared toward ovarian cancer research, the disease that had taken her mother. Stewart remembers being flanked by her aunt and best friend, who stayed by her side as she walked — so far behind all the other participants that by the time she reached the finish line, most of parking lot was empty and the vendors were all packing up. But she finished with a smile.
“I felt really proud to be walking in my mom’s memory, and I was OK with being dead last,” she says. “It just proved to me that I could set a goal and reach it.”
With that accomplishment behind her, she began swimming at the local YMCA, bartering graphic design work for a membership. The supervisor there also threw in a new pair of high-quality running shoes, which Stewart hadn’t been able to afford.
“When you’re that heavy, you need good support, and the fact that she offered those shoes meant a great deal,” says Stewart. “It made me feel like someone cared, and that goes such a long way. It’s so much harder to keep progressing if you’re doing it all on your own. Having these good people around made a big difference.”
THE PUSHUP AND BEYOND
Even with a steady amount of activity, Stewart still faced weight challenges, falling back into the yo-yo pattern she’d experienced many times before. She lost 65 pounds, only to gain 42 of them back shortly after.
Then she saw a friend’s Facebook post about a personal training business where the catchphrase was “getting comfortable with being uncomfortable.” The phrase made her laugh, because she was already uncomfortable, but she called anyway.
Simply to go in was a huge leap of faith, she remembers. All of her doubts flooded in, saying she couldn’t afford it, she didn’t have the time, she didn’t want to be seen in workout clothes in public and that she’d be surrounded by a bunch of young, fit people who might judge her for the way she looked. She was 380 pounds at that point and couldn’t rise off the floor without grabbing a bench.
She went anyway.
The trainer turned out to be a motivating force, with compassion and a genuine love for fitness, and everyone at the gym was just as supportive. She often laughed about the moves he asked her to do, but she tried them anyway. That first pushup took nearly five minutes, but now she’s worked up to four pushups in half that time.
Stewart has logged other firsts as well, including three sets of 15-second planks, and rounds of leg raises lying on her back that she never thought she’d be able to do. She also got more serious about tracking her food with MyFitnessPal, so she could achieve a healthier balance when it came to her exercise and meals.
“The exercises I do aren’t pretty, but I do them,” she says, with a laugh. “I am obviously getting stronger, and I keep surprising myself.” The hardest part, she adds, is still mental — she works to convince herself that she’s beautiful and worth the time, effort and money.
In her first month of training, food tracking and home workouts, she lost 21 pounds. Stewart is excited to continue improving, and keep logging those “firsts” as she gets healthier.
“My fears and ‘what ifs’ had bound me up for way too long,” she says. “I want to live life, not have it just pass me by.”
Written by Elizabeth Millard, a freelance journalist specializing in health and fitness. She’s also an organic farmer, yoga teacher, obstacle course aficionado and 5K junkie. Her work has appeared in SELF, Men’s Health, CNN and other publications.